I’m at Chapter [Episode] 12 on this fine series. Kevin Spacey is mesmerizing in the role of Frank Underwood, a master Machievellian legislator. He has the steel, but not the style, of one of 20th century greats, LBJ. (What I know about LBJ as a legislator I learned from Caro’s Master of the Senate, which I read years ago now and will have to revisit soon). There is a great shot of Frank in one of the later episodes with a picture of LBJ in the background, jawing a fellow politician. This helps to confirm my immediate take that the writers of this series had LBJ as one of the models for Frank Underwood. He too is a poor Southerner who has come to dominate congress but never forgets who he is and where he came from, simultaneously and selectively rejecting and embracing his roots.
At some point, I will pour over the the text of this fine series and watch it with great care. There are many lapidary quotes by Underwood, delivered in a sublime Southern accent. Here is a short sample:
“I love her more than sharks love blood,” he says about his wife Claire, his wife and political partner.
“Such a waste of talent. He chose money over power – in this town, a mistake nearly everyone makes. Money is the Mc-mansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries”
“There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong and useless pain, the sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things.”
Sometimes these are witty, as is the case with the first. The second, to my mind, captures Machiavelli’s biggest takeaway about what should ultimately drive politicians: the relentless desire to become a founder. Founders build institutions and become immortal. It is not coincidental that the cover of House of Cards is Frank Underwood in Lincoln’s chair, arguably the greatest American founder.
The third is Frank Underwood telling you how to live. If you think about it, he is saying that there really is only one kind of pain and it overwhelms timid souls, that is to say, nearly everyone. It takes wisdom, strength, and virtue to turn pain into advantage. This brought to mind King Henry V’s advice on pain and suffering:
‘Tis good for men to love their present pains
Upon example; so the spirit is eased:
And when the mind is quicken’d, out of doubt,
The organs, though defunct and dead before,
Break up their drowsy grave and newly move,
With casted slough and fresh legerity.
Last, it is worth stressing that up to this point Frank is driven by a desire to amass power, by whatever means necessary. He is the consumate Machievell. As his quote above notes, he has a will to power and it is not driven by money or women. I don’t know how the series will end — and this really doesn’t matter so long as it ends spectacularly as the series title suggests it will. Or will it end in glory as the series picture seems to indicate?
Frank thus far has been thwarted in his efforts to become Secretary of State and Vice President. He palpably wants to be President. He is to my mind laying the delicate stairs for his ascent, but this is not easy surrounded by other Machievellian devils. But Frank is an intrepid, cunning, pragmatic, and flawed Machiavell in this highly enjoyable and profound reflection on political power. By the way, he is flawed not because of murder, lies, or sexual exploitation. His achilles heel is that he has shown that he can be overly sentimental with women and this creates a dangerous blindspot.